Remain, For What?

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This is a tumultuous time for British politics. The unprecedented result of June’s historic referendum shook the British political establishment to its core, and the economic consequences – the worst of which are yet to be seen – are expected to be significant. Pundits attempting to discern the factors that led to the Leave vote have put forth countless theories as to why public opinion shifted as drastically as it did. Can the Remain/Leave divide be attributed to urban cosmopolitanism and rural parochialism? Was the Leave vote motivated by a malicious xenophobia, or a rational desire to increase border protection? Was it motivated by class or globalisation? Was it a reaction to the austerity measures advocated by the EU, or were Britons simply trying to reclaim their democracy from an opaque, bureaucratic monolith? The answer is all of the above. But the more pertinent question is this: how come the arguments expressed by the Remain side failed to pierce public consciousness, despite the employment of some seriously daunting economic and security predictions dubbed “Project Fear”?

John Cassidy, a columnist for the New Yorker, offered a succinct explanation for this phenomenon that warrants much consideration, arguing that the politics of fear perpetuated by the Remain camp failed to resonate with the public, because it offered no vision for a brighter future in Europe. However, Cassidy has just scratched the surface of the issue at hand, and his argument has opened a far bigger can of worms. Rather than simply representing an adverse reaction to fear mongering or post GFC austerity, the Leave vote represents a profound discontent with the very political ethos that has characterised the UK, and much of the West, following the end of the Cold War. What Brexit exemplified was a desire for the return of ideology to British politics, a conversation around the future of Britain that didn’t revolve around percentages of growth and job statistics, but rather one in which ideas and values are placed at the forefront of debate. The arguments of the Leave camp were so effective precisely because they revitalised a national mythos that post-Blair politics has failed to deliver. Drawing upon old notions of British exceptionalism, Leave was able to effectively persuade voters to follow a new trajectory that was to some extent, separate from the economy, revitalising a sense of national identity, rather than just regurgitating statistics that benefitted their agenda. This is not to say that they were ideologically consistent, but their arguments were peppered with far more rhetoric concerning national identity and values. Ideas of accountability, democracy and what it is to be British; the opposite is true for Remain, and this is why they failed.

Whether we are subject to a post-ideology politics is something hotly contested in the world of political science, but we can be certain of the fact that major party politicians love engaging in ideological quietism – obfuscating their philosophies through economic jargon – in order to avoid contentiousness and gain as many votes as possible. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn should have signalled a shift away from this style of politics, but his arguments for Remain mirrored the cautious third way pragmatism of his Blairite predecessors. Whilst this is probably due to his own uncertainty around the decision, the “socialist case for Remain” sounded more like an ad for the steel industry than it did a call to arms for Labour voters or the advocating of a pluralistic, globalised Britain in Europe. Ultimately, Brexit has made evident the necessary step forward for the major parties if they want to thrive: ditch the jargon and articulate a desired national identity, a future for Britain based on ideology that isn’t contingent on economic growth.